Sunday, August 1, 2010


It was a week and a half ago. The second orange line train to the platform at Rosslyn was also completely packed and the number 3 bus was leaving in seven minutes, so I decided to give up and go upstairs to the bus stop. I had my iPod playing tracks from the second disc from Radiohead's "In Rainbows" which a friend had recently given me. My attention was swaddled in the music in a way that comfortably isolated me from the crowded platform. In theory, I try not to do this because it makes me ignore everyone around me and ignoring the rest of humanity is just generally a bad idea. However, on this particular day, I was just as happy not to be aware of the frustrated hoards of people sweating from the near 100 degree heat outside, angry at the trains too packed with other sweaty passengers to carry them home.

When she walked off the train and in front of me, I could smell the strong, coppery odor of sweat coming off of her, and my first thought was that the A/C in that train must have been broken, and that she must have just come from a workout on top of that. I noticed her long, dark hair, stringy with sweat at her neck. It's when I noticed her neck that I noticed her shoulders and thought Oh my God, she's anorexic... and badly so.

She walked towards the escalator I was going to take, which was also broken, so she walked up the motionless steps, and I walked behind her, feeling my stomach tighten at the sight of her tiny, fragile ankles and feet bound up in high heeled shoes. Her legs were skeletal, and I could see every blue vein in her calves as she walked up, up, up the escalator. Crossing the upper platform, she took a quick swig of something from a bottle she was carrying and looked back to her left, showing a profile of high cheekbones and gaunt cheeks; huge, dark, anxious eyes; and a sloping nose with a bit of pixie upturn at the end. She would be pretty if she wasn't starving herself. Then she started up the long, long, long escalator between the upper platform and the street level.

She walked the whole thing. I don't know how. Anyone who walks that particular escalator at Rosslyn is winded at the top, and there was simply no way in hell she had eaten anything of substance in some time. Her ankles shook in the absurd high heels as she climbed up, up, up, not pausing once. I followed behind, probably a little too close. I was horrified, and moved, by the skeletal arms, legs, shoulders and neck, by the way her clothing hung on her as though she were a coat hanger. I had tears in my eyes as I forced myself to keep my eyes down, on the fragile ankles... somewhere between praying for her and wanting to grab her and hug her 'til she was rid of whatever demon had a hold of her. I know I was following too close, maybe just two steps behind her, and I probably made her nervous, but honestly I was doing the best I could not to grab her and ask "Why, why, WHY, are you doing this to yourself?"

As we were walking up the escalators, the song "Last Flowers" was playing on my iPod, and the crescendo of the final chorus was pumping in my ears as we walked up the long escalator to the top...

it's too much, too bright, too powerful
too much, too bright, too powerful
too much, too bright, too powerful
too much, too bright, too powerful

...and I was struck with this repetitive mantra on fragility as I followed behind a living testament to fragility's self-ravaging dark side.

It is a very long walk up that escalator.

At the top, she went one way, and I went the other, towards the bus. I wanted to follow her, but what could I have done other than freaked her out?

And on the bus, I got out a tissue to wipe away the tears, and listed to the song again, and tried to understand why I was so upset.

I think part of it was mixed up with the story I've been following about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman in Iran who has received international attention due to the efforts of her children to draw attention to her situation. Sakineh is facing stoning for the "crime" of adultery, a crime she and her children say she didn't even commit, and for which she has already received 99 lashes with a whip. My thoughts over and over again as I've read about this woman --and again read articles about women in South and Southeast Asia who have had acid thrown in their faces by vengeful suitors, husbands, and exes, horribly and permanently disfiguring them-- is how unbelievably fortunate I am to not ever have to face anything like this... and how my freedom does obligate me to speak out for those women who are *not* free around the world.

I know that my freedom is not solely a function of my living in the U.S. There are plenty of women here trapped in relationships and situations that limit them severely. But I thank God from the bottom of my heart and soul that I have yet to hear of a stoning for adultery or an acid attack in this country. God forbid it happen here. God help it not to happen anywhere.

In this context, a self-abuse like anorexia seems to be a moral outrage. Really? In the most prosperous country on earth? In one of the most prosperous areas of that country? When you have freedom and access to privileges beyond the dreams of women in most countries? No one forcing you to get married or bear children before you're ready. No one denying you access to education, to jobs, to health care simply because you're a woman. What in the hell could be so wrong with you that you would starve yourself to death in the midst of such freedoms?

I *don't* understand anorexia, and I don't want to. I understand anxiety, but self-starvation and overexercise? No. But the thing that struck me is that my emotions towards that girl were not contemptuous. I felt horror, and then I felt grief. In a situation like Sakineh's, I can point at the offenders. I can identify the injustice. There is little that I can do to help, maybe, but I can at least identify what is wrong. With this girl, my helplessness was bottomless. Not only could I not help, I could not identify the offender, the perpetrator of this wrong... unless I point at Satan, and pray. That's all I can do.

And although I don't understand anorexia, I understand that this girl and I both suffer, despite being affluent and privileged. And that is a source of such confusion for me. I understand that this world is fallen, but why am I not generally happy anyway? I have Christ. I have love. I have a job and am educated. I have a really wonderful church and amazing, inspiring friends. But until a couple of months ago, I couldn't walk up that escalator at Rosslyn because to even think of it would send me into a panic attack. My mind *also* tends towards self-obsession, towards anxiety, down labyrinthine pathways of anger, selfishness, greed and judgement. All of us fight these things, really.

Oh God, we are SO frail and weak and stumbling. Even the strong among us are blindly, blithely hurting others. Oh God, we are so in need of Your Grace. This world is so broken... there is beauty, but the injustices in cases like Sakineh's and the needless misery in cases like this girl's cry out for You to intervene. We cannot save this world ourselves. Please help us, LORD. We are so fragile. Please help us, guide us, comfort us and set us free.

Come, LORD Jesus.


Mike Croghan said...

I've been asking questions like these myself, lately. Thanks for this, Moffitt.

svr said...

I had a similar experience just a few weeks ago. In the check out line at Wal-mart I was behind a skeletal woman, her boyfriend beside her holding their baby. It saddened me so, and I wanted to talk to her but didn't know how, and I wept in the car. You are right, COME QUICKLY Jesus.